Past Oil Forecasts, and the “Limits to Growth” Message

in Peak Oil by

Abstract for
Uppsala, Sweden, May 23-25, 2002
Organized by Uppsala University and ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil

Past Oil Forecasts, and the “Limits to Growth” Message
by Roger W. Bentley, ODAC, UK
email: [email protected]

One of the reasons that people, ‘oil experts’ in particular, are disinclined to believe the serious situation forecast by current global oil depletion calculations is their conviction that virtually all past oil forecasts have been wrong, particularly those made in the 1970’s. This view sees the present calculations as just another example of ‘crying wolf.’

On examination, it turns out that most reputable oil forecasts made in the 1970’s were substantially correct.

Oil forecasts from the 1970’s mostly fit into one of four classes.

  • General, non-quantitative, fears of global supply scarcity, based on the experience of shortages that occurred during the oil shocks.
  • Predictions of global oil exhaustion in 30 years or so (‘oil running out’), based on the then proven oil reserves of about 30 years’ worth of current production.
  • Predictions of global oil exhaustion in a much shorter timescale, based on the then proven oil reserves (or some assumed larger amount), but with growth rising rapidly exponentially, as had been the case until fairly shortly before the shocks.
  • Predictions that global oil production would reach a peak (very different to oil exhaustion) around the year 2000.

It was this fourth view that characterised the forecasts from all reputable organisations at the time (for example, Esso, Shell, the UK Dept. of Energy, the US Congress, the World Bank), and which was also reflected in virtually all textbooks and monographs on energy published at the time (for example, ‘Only One Earth’, Ward & Dubos, 1972, for the UN Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm; or ‘The Global 2000 Report to the President’, 1982.)

This fourth, ‘production peaking,’ forecast was based on:

  • the then well-accepted estimate for the world’s conventional oil ‘ultimate’ (i.e., original endowment of recoverable oil), of roughly 2000 Gb;
  • the knowledge that global production peak would not occur until something like half of this, 1000 Gb, had been used;
  • the knowledge that only ~300 Gb had been consumed at that date;
  • the assumption that production would follow an ‘unrestricted’ logistic (‘Hubbert’) production profile.

On this basis, the global midpoint was calculated to lie around the year 2000, (a precise calculation giving the date as 1996).

In the event, global demand was substantially curtailed by the price rises of the oil shocks, and an unrestricted logistic profile was not followed; with the result at the estimate of conventional ultimate of around 2000 Gb (still to-day, for this purpose, the best estimate to use) only moves the global conventional oil production peak to around 2010.

Thus to-day’s oil depletion calculations are, in quantitative terms, virtually the same warnings about the wolf’s approach (i.e., the peak in the global production of conventional oil) as were made by reputable organizations in the 1970’s.

These are warnings it would, therefore, be wise to heed.

The paper will also address subsequent forecasts, such as BP’s ‘Oil Crisis Again ..’, and the failure of that company’s more recent ‘Big Field Forecast’; as well as analyzing the calculations in the Club of Rome’s famous ‘The Limits to Growth’ study.

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